A tour de force rendering of the history of the deforestation not only of North America but beyond told through the personal stories of three dozen (at least) characters beginning with the settlement of North America.
Barkskins begins with the lives of two indentured servants–characters whose lives we quickly realize are less important to Proulx than what they reveal about the attitudes and actions of the European settlers on the natural environment, including their relations with the native Americans they came in contact with starting at the end of the 17th century to the present.
Proulx’s need to have a vehicle to tell the story of the forests lessens the import of any particular character as well as necessitates the invention of so many characters she had to hire someone to construct a family tree (which is found at the back of the book for those who attempt to conquer this 700-page tome) something she admits she wasn’t sure she had the stamina to do herself.
That this is the story of the forests as much as the people doesn’t diminish the mastery Proulx displays over the details of how the forests were ravaged–the tools used, the means of conveying logs to the mills, the advances in the technology as well as business structures. The research she must have done in order to provide such a detailed picture of the events she portrarys took years as well as time spent in Canada, Europe and New Zealand as well as different parts of the U.S.
Her didactic theme also doesn’t undermine Proulx’s master of the English language which keeps us enthralled as she weaves her big picture concerns through the trials and tribulations of the lives of her characters. Don’t let the book’s length discourage you from picking it up. Already highly regarded for The Shipping News and her short story Brokeback Mountain, Barkskins is proof that she is one of the most original and serious fiction authors of our time.